Reading the diet buzzwords on the packaging of so many of our foods can make grocery shopping a headache. Many labels sound like they’re taking away the bad stuff from your food — low-fat, low-calorie, low-sugar, low-carb — but does that make the food healthier?
What should you be paying attention to, and what do these words even mean?
Ideally, we should mostly be eating foods that don’t have nutrition labels (you know — fruits and veggies). But, in the real world, we get busy. We need midafternoon pick-me-ups, and we need at least an occasional dinner shortcut.
So some of our food will come in packages, and it’s easy to fall for different health claims thinking we’re making better choices.
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Decoding Labels: Understanding Nutrition Terms
Many labels on food such as “all-natural” are meaningless or not fully defined. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines criteria for what can be said on the box, but some manufacturers still include phrases that have not been defined. Always look beyond the front of the package to the nutrition facts and ingredients.
What it means: To label food as low-fat, it must have 3 grams of fat or less per serving or per 100 calories if the food is typically a main course.
What to look for: Low-fat dairy products are generally considered the best for our health, and we may want to trim the fat out of some snacks. However, be sure to check the ingredients for added sugars. In many cases, when the fat is removed, sugar is added to make the food taste better. You may find you have to make a trade-off between fat and sugar.
What it means: To qualify as low-calorie, a food must have 40 calories or fewer per serving.
What to look for: Check the serving size and think realistically about how much you will actually eat. If the serving size is for 15 crackers, but you’re more likely to eat 30, that food may not be low-calorie for you. Also, look for artificial sweeteners or other no-calorie ingredients that may be added to lessen the total calories.
Low-sugar or less-sugar
What it means: Low-sugar has no definition by the FDA; however, less-sugar means that a product has at least 25 percent less sugar than other comparable products.
What to look for: Again, look at serving size and consider how much you will actually eat in one sitting. Also look for artificial sweeteners, including aspartame and sucralose. Many times, particularly in sugar-free foods, the sugar is replaced with synthetic sweeteners.
What it means: Nothing. There’s been a lot of debate about claims of low-carbohydrates and the FDA has not defined this statement. It should not appear on food packages. However, some foods may advertise as being an option for a low-carb diet.
What to look for: No matter what diet you follow, when it comes to carbs, look for whole grains. Avoid too many foods with ingredients like enriched wheat flour and semolina and opt for whole wheat flour.
Health claims are a decent starting point when shopping, but they can be misleading. Opt for whole foods–foods that come they way they are in nature without added sugars, fats, or salts–whenever possible, and always check the ingredients to make sure you’re not trading one bad ingredient for another.
Editor's Note: This video was originally published on , and was last reviewed on . Refreshed 2/16/22.
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